Sacro Egoismo or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Neutrality


ROME- Sidney Sonnino's government was hit by the tragedy today with the news of Antonio Salandra's sudden death. The finance minister was going to Pisa for institutional reasons, when the train he was traveling on derailed near Grosetto.

While he served as finance minister for just over a month, mourning for his sudden death has come from all parts of the political spectrum, including former Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti.
Sonnino has promised to start an investigation regarding the incident, while also reassuring the parliament this will not stop the work of the government.

-La Domenica del Corriere, 1/26/1910

The year 1913 represented the most important moment in Giovanni Giolitti's political life: not only had he managed to survive the new elections after losing the support of the Socialists the previous year[1], but he had also managed to unify the centrist and moderate current of the Italian politics through the formation of the so-called "Liberal Union", a single centrist and liberal coalition composed by both leftwing and rightwing moderates.

The result of a process started already by Prime Minister Agostino Depretis in 1879[2], the Union managed to win 47.6% of the votes, gaining 270 seats out of 508.

With a weak and divided opposition between the Socialists and the Republicans, Giolitti seemed to have secured all the support needed to govern.

Unfortunately in less than a year another apparent flaw in his system came to view when the Radical Party and its leader Ettore Sacchi [3] retired their supports for the government, leading to the downfall of Giollitti's administration.

While it was weakened, the Liberal Union still managed to hold the majority in the Parliament, meaning Giolitti still held enough influence and authority to recomend his successor.[4]

Although the end of the fourth Giolitti government had been predicted by many European political observers, many were still surprised by the appointment of Minister of Foreign Affairs Antonino Paternò Castello as the new prime minister of the Kingdom of Italy.

While this decision may seem bizarre and unorthodox in the eyes of non-Italian readers, there are a number of factors to keep in mind:

1)A shortage of candidates acceptable to all political forces present in parliament during that period. In the chaotic context of twentieth-century Italian politics, Castello was one of the few politicians acceptable to all political currents.

Having already served under the Luzatti government, he had already acquired a reputation as an intelligent and skilled ambassador, and his support for the invasion of Libya in 1911 had made him sufficiently popular with the most militaristic area of Italian politics.

Likewise his defense of Italian interests in the Balkans against Austria-Hungary had secured him enough support from Italian conservatives to be elected as Prime Minister.

2) His was considered a transitional government more than anything else. In fact, many still believe that Giolitti supported Castello's nomination more to prevent his rival Sidney Sonnino [5] from becoming prime minister again than to create a stable government (of course Giolitti was unable to prevent the nomination of his rival as minister of the Finances in the new government[6])

In short, the new Castello government was seen by both the Italian Right and the Italian Left as a time to lick their wounds and prepare themself for a new political comeback within two, maximum three, years.

Of course on March 21, 1914, nobody could have expected that in a little more than three months all Europe would have entered into one of the most devastating wars in human history and that Castello's actions would have redefined Italian politics forever ..

-From Prelude to The Great War, Richard M. Nixon

[1] They had formed a coalition government with him in 1911, but Giolitti's support for the invasion of Lybia caused the collapse of the alliance,causing the elections mentioned above.

[2]Prime Minister multiple times between 1879 and 1887. A left-wing politican, he quite literally created the concept of "Trasformismo",the method of making a flexible, centrist coalition of government which isolated the extremes of the left and the right in Italian politics after the unification.

[3] As the name already suggests, the Radical Party weren't moderates. A far left political party existing between 1904 and 1922, it called for the abolition of the monarchy and a series of socialist reforms. Both in OTL and ITTL they weren't part of the Liberal Union, but Giolitti made them part of his government after they had won more than 10% of the vote (62 seats) at the elections of 1913.

[4]It may seem a little ASB, but in OTL Giolitti himself was behind Salandra's nomination as Prime MInister, even if he had just lost the election. ITTL he still using his massive political influence but in another direction

[5] OTL Sonnino was one of Giolitti's main opponents. Without Salandra as a compromise candidate(in OTL he had actually started as a supporter of Giolitti), Giolitti preferred to use his political influence to find another replacent ITL.

[6] A job he had already held between 1893 and 1896 under the Crispi's government. Obviously ITTL he recieves the job mostly to satisfy his supporters
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NOTE: i had to rewrite a good part of the first chapter, after noticing a series of mistakes. I hope my english is correct enough
War abroad and war at home

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie illustrated in the Italian newspaper Domenica del Corriere, 12 July 1914 by Achille Beltrame.

"Of course the Italian government denounces this barbaric assasination, but we cannot assist Vienna or Berlin in this war of aggression."

-Excerpt from Antonio Castello's speech in front of the italian parliament, following the news of Franz Ferdinand's death.

"Beh, ora che cazzo facciamo?" ("Well, what the fuck are we going to do now?")
-Allegedly what the prime minister muttered to himself shortly after the official speech.

Considering the events of the following decades, readers will be surprised to learn that most of the Italian population had little interest in intervening in the Great War.

While the country had been part of the so-called Triple Alliance (a military alliance with Vienna and Berlin) since 1879, the Italian government had started to reconcile with the French government since the beginning of the 20th century. In 1914 the real question in the minds of the Italians was not what part to support in the conflict (in 1914 it was also clear in Berlin that Italy had more interest in attacking Austria than France), but if war was really necessary.

In the chaotic days following the outbreak of the conflict, Italy found itself divided into two camps:

1)The interventionist camp led by minister of the Finances Sonnino. Supporter of the irridentist cause, Sonnino believed that the war would have allowed the annexation of Istria, Dalmatia and would have allowed Italy to expand in the Balkans.

2)The neutralist camp led by the ex Prime Minister Giolitti, worried about the bad conditions of the Italian army (as the invasion of Libya had already shown in 1911) and convinced that the Italian economy would be irreparably damaged by the conflict.

Particularly problematic for the prime minister was the fact that his own cabinet was divided between the two factions (indeed support for the two camps knew no political affiliation and often caused huge rifts inside the various political parties), often causing disagreements between the various members and threatening to end his government.

It is of course a matter of debate what San Giuliano's exact position was: after all he was the man who started the political of distension towards France since his first appointment as Foreign minister in 1905, while also mantainig the alliance with Germany and Austria.
Indeed many used the occasion for calling him an hypocrite or even a traitor ( socialist agitator Benito Mussolini in particoular wrote a series of articles calling the PM a sell-out ready to sacrifice the freedom of Italians in Istria and Dalmatia just to protect his power).

The situation became further complicated by the sudden death of the Chief of Staff Alberto Pollio from a heart attack on 1 July 1914. Now the government was facing the prospect of a new constitutive crisis when Sonnino, going against the wishes of the government, recommended Luigi Cadorna, a general particoularly loved by the pro-war members of parliament (in fact it was suggested that King Vittorio Emanuele III himself was behind the appointment) rather than general Pietro Frugoni, a more moderate figure who had casted doubts about Italy's ability to fight in the Great War.

Existing for just over a year, the Liberal Union was already falling apart due to a war outside Italy.

-Except from An history of European warfare: from the Hundred Years' War to The Great War, Roland Monsier
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The damn key are the negotiations between Italy and A-H; more neutralist goverment or not everyone (Giolitti included) want to have something en return for remain neutral...even because it will not be a bed of rose and letting the Austrian having their all you can eat buffet in the Balkans is a big no no
Sacro Egoismo
"I received news from the Italian government today STOP They are interested in discussing their potential entry and / or neutrality in the war STOP Contact Minister Leopold [1] now STOP."
-Telegram by Kajetan von Mérey[2] to the Austro-Hungarian government 14/11/1914

"I received news from the Italian government today STOP They are interested in discussing their potential entry and / or neutrality in the war STOP Contact Minister Delcassé [3] now STOP."
-Telegram by Camille Barrère[4] to the French government 14/11/1914

The Russian victory in the battle of Lemberg [5] was both a blessing and a curse for the Italian government: on the one hand it was sufficient to convince the Austrian government to negotiate with the Castello government, on the other hand, however, it greatly strengthened the warlike positions of Sonnino and his supporters .

With the government still in crisis due to the appointment of the Chief of staff (in fact in August 1914, the position was still vacant and disputed between Cadorna and Frugoni), prime minister San Giuliano started a particular policy: contacting both the French and Austrian governments and see who offered the most benefits.

Particular in this regard was the fact that he hid the contacts with the Austrian government from both Sonnino and his supporters, being afraid to trigger a new institutional crisis. By all accounts Sonnino believed that Castello had opened negotiations only with Paris, London and St Petersburg.

It is difficult to understand why Sonnino was not suspicious of the fact that both the French Embassy and the Austrian Embassy were in full swing in the fateful weeks of September / October 1914 or the fact that the Foreign Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando[6] seemed continually busy. Perhaps he was still mindful of Castello's support for the Italian-Turkish war three years earlier or perhaps more simply the prime minister's precarious health conditions [7] led him to underestimate his political acumen.

While this would become a particularly controversial decision in later years, it must be understood that the prime minister was simply following the principle of "Sacred Egoism " ("Sacro Egoismo"), which he had already begun to use since 1905: a convinced pragmatist, Castello saw both the governments of the Allies and Central Powers governments as rivals for Italian power in the world.

In fact, he himself believed that regardless of who won the war, it would automatically become an obstacle for Italian interests. From this point of view, his reluctance to support any type of military intervention must be seen as an extreme act of realpolitik rather than hypocrisy or double play.

Interstingly enough this put him also in odds with Giolitti, who opposed any kind of negotiation with either side for fear of damaging Italy's reputation abroad. Allegedly in front of his protests, Castello declared that "Either i give to the parliament something to justify neutrality or the King and the socialists will team up to kick me out and go to war with everyone else."

-Except from A nation without friends: Italy in the first half of the 20th century, Valerio Massimo Manfredi .

The treaty offers by the Italian government had different and at the same time similar effects on the governments of Etente and the central Powers: while both alliances had many interests in seeing Italy involved in the conflict, they diverged on the level of involvement required, due to the situation on the eastern front in September 1914.
Etente's governments (especially Russia[8] and Serbia) were interested in the possibility of a new front against Austria, believing that this would facilitate Russian military operations in Austrian and German territory, thus rejecting the idea of a neutral Italy.

On the other hand, the German government believed that Italy would be fundamental both as an ally and as a non-belligerent. Indeed, after the defeats suffered by the Austrians against the Russians and the failed invasion of Serbia, General Erich Georg Sebastian Anton von Falkenhayn [9] believed it essential to strengthen the Austrian front.
The main problem was, however, within the Austrian government itself: while Foreign Minister Leopold Berchtold favored the idea of negotiations with Italy, his idea was opposed by both Prime Minister István Tisza and General Conrad von Hötzendorf .

The onset of the siege of Przemyśl, however, significantly weakened the position of Tisza and Hötzendorf, with even members of the Austrian General Staff pushing them to consider at least their options [10].

At the beginning of November 1914, two very different telegrams were sent to minister Orlando from Paris and Vienna.

-Except from An history of European warfare: from the Hundred Years' War to The Great War, Roland Monsier


Today is a sad day for the revolution, my fellow workers.
Today the capitalist and bourgeois forces of our government have just betrayed the trust of the Italian state and the peoples who suffer under the Austrian yoke.

Today the perfidious and despotic Castello went to parliament to enhance the so-called "peace", his government secretly negotiated with his bourgeois friends in Vienna and Berlin: a few pieces of insignificant territory to promise neutrality to the Kaiser and the Austrian emperor.

Like Judah before him, the prime minister sold his soul for an insignificant price.

But I say no, comrades! I say to take the streets and rise against this shame!
Do not act like the so-called "moderate" Turati! Do not applaud the bourgeois government just for fear of the necessary sacrifices! Get up and fight for our comrades who suffer in Istria and Dalmatia!

-Avanti, 3/12/1914 [11]

[1]Leopold Berchtold, OTL austrian foreign minister from 17 February 1912 to 13 January 1915
[2] OTL austrian ambassador to Italy from 4 March 1910 to 23 May 1915
[3]Théophile Delcassé, OTL french foreign minister from 1914 to 1915
[4]Camille Barrère, OTL french ambassador to Italy from 1897 to 1924
[5] Yeah, for now the Eastern Front is going like OTL. Even with a more friendly Italy, i see no reason why Austria's initial strategy against Russia would be different ITTL
[6] In OTL he is mostly known as "Premier of Victory" for being the PM who oversaw the defeat of the Central Powers. ITTL he simply never abandons his initial pacifist views unlike OTL.
[7] I mean San Giuliano died in October 1914 in OTL. ITTL having more control on the situation and not being forced to travel around Europe to meet various diplomats is helping his health a bit.
[8] Same as OTL basically.
[9]The second Chief of the German General Staff of the First World War from September 1914 until 29 August 1916. Again this is aposition he held in OTL too.
[10]Unlike OTL italy's ambitions are more moderate, putting Berchtold in a better position ITTL
[11] Guess who is the OTL italian dictator who wrote this article ITTL?
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Sorry for the delay. Don't worry: the next update will cover the two famous telegraphs and the reactions home and abroad about the italian government's actions.

If you have criticisms and/or questions, you are free to do what you want
Good format, but I find this many notes distracting. Simply stating the charge of a person between commas after his name would reduce last post's notes from 11 to 6. If you want to add comparison with OTL, I would prefer a follow-up post that does not draw attention away while you're reading. Thank you
Vienna offer will be probably some vague promise about some unspecific compensation to be given after the war, while at the same time affirm that art.7 don't apply or that Libya covered and they don't own Italy a thing
Peace for our time?
Oh, I won't lie about it: when I accepted the post of foreign minister, I didn't have high expectations about the future.
I imagined a long and boring experience characterized by meetings of various kinds with various ambassadors and other foreign politicians.
The fact that Castello had been quite vocal about his desire to strictly control Italian foreign policy also meant that my freedom of action was severely limited.

Probably the period between 5 and 27 November 1914 was the moment in which this became more evident: not only had I been told to hide the situation of the negotiations from Sonnino, but also from Giolitti.
So as foreign minister my main job at that time was to deal secretly with the governments of the Exente and the Central Powers, to be sure that they will not realize that we were dealing with both and to avoid both Sonnino and Giolitti out of fear that they would have brought down the government or reported directly to the king what was happening.

November 5, 1914 was the most critical moment for the government: that day I finally received the necessary answers from Paris and Berlin.

Now many people still accuse me of being the main responsible for subsequent events as Castello was already too sick to make a logical decision.
My answer to these people is simple: they are all lies.

I still remember the meeting I had with the Prime Minister to inform him of the state of the negotiations.
It was already clear then that he was dying: his gout had gotten so bad that even leaving the bed had become difficult, and he seemed to have aged 20 years early, but his mind was clear as every other day.
I also remember how angry he was after reading the two telegrams.

"Wonderful, isn't it?" he said after reading the offers "We offer peace to both sides and the only things we get are a refusal and the promise of a few crumbs"

At that point he stopped due to a strong coughing attack.

"I can't even blame you for that." He continued shortly after "They all lost their minds."

At that point he called me back to his bed and gave me back the telegrams.

"Maybe we can continue the negotiations ..." I started, but he quickly interrupted me.

"No, I'm not sure I will survive until December at this point and I seriously doubt Sonnino doesn't already suspect what's going on." Then he put his hands over his face. "Vienna offers us little, but at least offers us something. Paris and Saint Petersburg on the other hand are too insistent on making us declare war against Austria-Hungary." At that point he stopped again for a bitter laugh. "God, all this chaos just for a couple of bullets."

"Well," he started, suddenly looking a bit better "I suppose it is time to tell the king what we have been doing behind his back for the last couple of months, isn't it?"

- Except from Memories of a turbolent time , Victorio Emanuele Orlando

While the specific details of the meeting between Vittorio Emanuele III and his Prime Minister Castello on November 10, 1914 are still shrouded in mystery, we can reconstruct some details through the study of subsequent events and indirect testimonies of those who met the two men shortly after their discussion.

By all accounts we know that the king was a staunch supporter of military intervention in the Great War: a staunch irridentist, he had been a staunch supporter of rapprochement with France in contrast to the pro-Austrian positions adopted by his father Umberto I.

With the outbreak of the conflict, the king had finally seen the possibility of expanding the Italian state and claiming Habsburg territories, which he believed were part of the natural Italian borders. Unfortunately his ambitions found an obstacle in the figure of Castello.

We know for certain that the king did not suspect or at least was not well informed about the secret negotiations between his prime minister and the governments of the Entente and the Central Powers: in the weeks following the beginning of the conflict, he had repeatedly summoned General Alberto Pollio to discuss the state of the Italian armed forces and after the death of the Chief of Staff he had encouraged Sonnino to appoint General Cadorna as a substitute.

Obviously the news that his own prime minister had acted without his knowledge to maintain Italian neutrality did not make him particularly happy.

It is difficult to imagine what he expected on November 15, 1914 when he received the Prime Minister in a private meeting. Perhaps he was convinced that Castello was ready to resign because of his poor health or that he had come to discuss the Chief Of Staff's still vacant position.

But of course the news he received was of quite another significance.

Although some newspapers of the time report that there was a violent quarrel between the two men and that their screams could be heard on the street, these news must be dismissed as sensationalist gossip and nothing else. The testimonies of the palace servants do not report any cry from the king or the prime minister, but agree that neither man seemed particularly happy after leaving the room where they met.

According to the autobiography of the then foreign minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, Castello seemed particularly proven by the interview (although the veracity of his statements is still in question), but at the same time he seemed radiant with the results obtained.

Queen Elena on the other hand reports in her diaries that her husband was furious at being deceived by his own prime minister and we can suspect that it was he himself who informed Sonnino of what was happening.

Over the years, the theory was also formulated that had also considered the idea of using the authority conferred on him by the stute Albertino to declare war against the Central Powers[1], ignoring the agreements signed by his parliament, but that he had changed his mind in the end in the belief that Sonnino had enough supporters to create a new government in favor of entering the conflict.
Obviously the latter theory is only the result of conjecture, due to some little thought statement by the king in the days following the meeting with his prime minister.

-Except from An history of European warfare: from the Hundred Years' War to The Great War, Roland Monsier

While Finance Minister Sonnino was furious after discovering Castello's secret negotiations, he discovered at the same time that he had very little chance of changing the situation.

While enjoying the support of the king and many personalities of the military, journalistic and cultural environment (in particular of the poet D'Annunzio from his French exile), Sonnino was deprived of a real political support. While there were other political figures in the Italian parliament in favor of military intervention, often these figures belonged to completely opposite political fields and also differed on the reasons for entering the war (from nationalists eager to expand Italian borders, to socialist radicals who believed the war was the first step towards the great proletarian revolution), making the formation of an alternative coalition government almost impossible.

Worse still, many Italian conservatives did not show much support for Sonnino. While they were in favor of entering the war, they feared that suddenly abandoning the commitments made with the other European powers would seriously damage Italy's international reputation and believed that waiting for another war or a possible collapse of the Habsburg empire was a a less attractive but more honorable alternative.

The idea of putting the government in crisis through his resignation was also unattractive for one simple reason: the fear of entering a devastating war had convinced the moderate socialists led by Filippo Turati and other political parties outside the Liberal Union to secretly support Prime Minister San Giuliano.

Fearing that he would lose the little political power left to him and weaken the Italian Right by his resignation, Sonnino was therefore forced to accept Italian neutrality in the conflict.

-Except from A nation without friends: Italy in the first half of the 20th century, Valerio Massimo Manfredi .


-The Austrian government undertakes to cede its Trentino territory to the kingdom of Italy.

-The cities of Trieste and Rijeka will be declared imperial free cities. While they will remain part of the Habsburg domains, their Italian minority will receive special status and the imperial government will allow the opening of Italian universities in both cities.

-The Italian claims on Albania will be recognized as legitimate. Therefore Italy is free to make Albania a protectorate [2].

-The Austrian government is committed to facilitating trade with the Kingdom of Italy by offering better commercial treaties in the future.

"Yes, I have to confirm the veracity of these claims. Today I confirm that I have signed peace with the Austrian, German and Ottoman governments.

I do not offer you the splendid little war promised by Cadorna. I offer you peace. I offer you an extension of the Italian territory without spilling any drop of blood. I offer you the protection of our interests in the Adriatic Sea without the fear of a conflict with another European state.

Let the rest of Europe fight this unnecessary war. We leave the cries of widows and orphans outside our borders. We make sure peace reign in our country and that no young man dies in a war that nobody wants.

We have honorable peace. Why risk everything in such an unattractive war?"

-Except from prime minister Castello's "Honorable Peace" speech, 17/12/1914

[1]This is basically what he did in OTL to enter WW1. OTL this power was abolished only in 1920 by the new Giolitti government
[2]Obviously the idea of Italy directly annexing Albania wasn't even considered by Vienna.
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There were many problems with the italian negotiation with A-H regarding any compensation for neutrality that made signing a treaty very difficult and only some were on the italian side (Salandra and Sonnino demand).
Vienna really and i mean really don't want to give up even an inch of his territory, part due to the animosity with Italy and in part because Hungary fear that Romania will pretend similar treatment and they cashiered the foreign minister that even entertained the notion to give up a strip of Trentino to was necessary the German intervention, Conrad intervention (he was an idiot but even him understood that adding a front in Italy was a disaster) and a series of military reverse to get the OTL final offer.
Even in that case, A-H agreed to give up the territory at the end of the war, not before...and that was the biggest problem, as everybody knows that A-H doesn't have the intention of cede anything and that any treaty that permit to postpone such transfer of territory it's not worthy the paper and the ink used on it.
Even Giolitti, a staunch neutralist, thought that and hoped to get Tunisia at the negotiaton table
Vienna really and i mean really don't want to give up even an inch of his territory
Oh yeah, not everybody in the austrian high comand is happy about this arrangement. It will have a lot of repercussions in the future of this TL

Even in that case, A-H agreed to give up the territory at the end of the war, not before
It is a bit different from OTL. Here it is more the result of german pressure and fear that the Russians will soon march to Vienna (especially after the failure of Conrad's attack). ITTL the italian government's ambitions are more moderates (like asking to make Trieste a free city rather than asking for a direct annexation or not asking for Dalmatia), meaning Vienna is a bit more open to negotiations
It is a bit different from OTL. Here it is more the result of german pressure and fear that the Russians will soon march to Vienna (especially after the failure of Conrad's attack). ITTL the italian government's ambitions are more moderates (like asking to make Trieste a free city rather than asking for a direct annexation or not asking for Dalmatia), meaning Vienna is a bit more open to negotiations

IMVHO the problem is not the overall reasoning but really the timeline, November is too soon; even OTL in December the max that A-H was ready to concede was recognize Dodecanese possession and the permanent occupation of Vlore and they reneged this the moment their military fortune seemed a little better and Germany pressure was still strong .
In OTL Von Bulow mission (your treaty seem more or less based on his proposal) started in late december maybe ITTL they try an earlier approach, still November is too early (whatever the italian request are) the negotiation were extremely hard and the Austrian really fought for litteraly any inch of Trentino land that they were ready to give up and only after some big event like Gallipoli; sure there were some talk about Germany cede some piece of Silesia to compensate A-h for Trentino, maybe they try this but i'm not that sure that in November the A-h goverment is ready to give up anything
MVHO the problem is not the overall reasoning but really the timeline, November is too soon; even OTL in December the max that A-H was ready to concede was recognize Dodecanese possession and the permanent occupation of Vlore and they reneged this the moment their military fortune seemed a little better and Germany pressure was still strong .
If i move the signing of the threaty to December rather than November 1914, do you think it would be more realistic? Or the problem stays?
If i move the signing of the threaty to December rather than November 1914, do you think it would be more realistic? Or the problem stays?

I think is better (even if personally, i think that before March/April 1915 Vienna is not really ready to seriously negotiate), still IMVHO at least a note about an earlier Von Bulow mission to try to mediate things between Italy and A-H is necessary